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The History Of The Caesar Salad

Who first thought of mixing eggs and anchovies in a dressing?


Food writer Élodie Noël explores the history of one of the most famous salads, which can be found on restaurants' menus all over the world.

Alongside the club sandwich and eggs Benedict, the Caesar salad sits quietly on the list of the ultimate hotel food - those classic crowd-pleasing dishes appealing to an international palate. Unusually for a salad though, the Caesar has something comforting about it - maybe in its familiarity, but also thanks to its creamy, umami-rich dressing paired with fresh leaves and crispy croûtons. 

You would probably imagine that the Caesar salad was created in the kitchen of a fancy American hotel. Or maybe by Julius Caesar himself. But the truth (or the closest we can get to it) is that this global favourite was created by an Italian-American restaurateur, who had received classic French training and owned an establishment in Mexico - a real fusion dish before fusion food was even a thing. 

An impromptu creation

According to his daughter Rosa, Caesar Cardini invented the salad in 1924 in Tijuana, where he had opened a restaurant to attract Americans clients frustrated by Prohibition. It is believed that on the busy weekend of July 4th, Cardini’s kitchen began to run short of ingredients and that he threw together some leftovers, including romaine lettuce, olive oil, raw egg, garlic, Parmesan cheese and Worcestershire sauce, to create a salad. Like many other dishes born from constraints, or from genuine mistakes made following a recipe (hello, tarte tatin), this impromptu concoction encountered a stellar success. 

But of course, Cardini’s claim to the invention of the salad is challenged by several people, including his own brother, Alex, who supposedly added the anchovies to the recipe and called his creation the Aviator’s salad. Caesar Cardini never put anchovies in his recipe, as he found that the Worcestershire sauce brought enough “fishy” taste to the mixture. A number of Cardini's staff have also declared to have invented the dish, without any serious proof.

A worldwide phenomenon

What is quite certain though is that this dish became popular among the Hollywood clientèle of the Mexican restaurant, who brought it back with them in California. It then travelled to Europe - where it is said to have been introduced by none else but Mrs Wallis Simpson, and eventually all over the world.

In her cookbook From Julia Child's Kitchen, published in 1975, legendary American chef Julia Child remembers the day she visited Cardini's restaurant in the 1920s. At the time, the salad was prepared tableside: “My parents, of course, ordered the salad. Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remembered his every move, but I don't. They only thing I see again clearly is the eggs. I can see him break two eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? And garlic-flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese? It was a sensation of a salad from coast to coast, and there were even rumblings of its success in Europe.”

Chicken or not?

The traditional recipe calls for romaine lettuce and croutons tossed with an unmistakable dressing, made of lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, Dijon mustard, Parmesan cheese and black pepper. Although not a part of the original recipe, anchovies are now an essential ingredient used in most recipes. Many chefs and cooks have put their own spin on the classic, including changing the green leaf, adding soft boiled or hard-boiled eggs, adding meat such as grilled chicken or bacon, or using mayonnaise as the base for the sauce. More daring alterations include adding tomatoes, avocado, pasta or even salmon.

In Dublin, Sophie’s in the Dean Hotel offers a Caesar salad made with marinated chicken, crispy bacon, croûtons and Parmesan cheese.

In Sprout, the healthy salad chain, customers can order a Kale Caesar, combining roasted chicken, curly kale, cos lettuce, crispy bacon, crispy gluten-free croûtons, semi-dried tomato, Parmesan, tossed with a basil Caesar dressing - a few steps away from the original recipe. According to founder Jack Kirwan, this salad, which is “a play on the usual Caesar salad” always proved very popular as it feels “like a treat”. “We dry cherry tomatoes overnight which gives them an intense sweetness. They contrast nicely with the crispy bacon and garlic croutons. We put fresh basil through the dressing too which gives it a delicious kick”, he explains. 

In many Irish restaurants, “Caesar” is seldom associated with the dressing used in the salad, with a lot of license taken from the original list of ingredients - which is why finding a true classic Caesar salad is no mean feat. Thankfully, it’s quite an easy one to whip up at home. 

RECIPE: Chargrilled Chicken Caesar Salad

Author: Élodie Nöel

Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on  Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.